Bert Olmstead

Bert Olmstead (Leafs)

Murray Albert Olmstead
Born: September 4, 1926 (Sceptre, Saskatchewan)
Died: November 17, 2015 (High Riverm Alberta)

 

Bert Olmstead was a hard-nosed forward who bulled his way into the Hockey Hall of Fame with a pugnacious style owing more to determination than ability.

Mr. Olmstead, who has died at 89, was a solid playmaker despite being a poor skater, his choppy strides betraying self-taught origins on chippy frozen sloughs in Saskatchewan.

From 1951 until 1960, he skated in 10 consecutive Stanley Cup final series, an incredibly rare feat even in the days of a six-team National Hockey League.

He had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup five times, four with the Montreal Canadiens and once with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He also established a record for assists in a season, as well as tying the mark for most points in a game with eight. Both marks were eventually surpassed.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound left winger was a prototype of the power forward, an inelegant attacker as keen to throw a bodycheck at an opponent as he was to shovel the puck to flashier teammates.

Bert Olmstead hockey card (Habs).JPGAfter his playing career ended, he had a coaching stint with the expansion Oakland Seals that lasted less than a year, his unhappy tenure including a stick-swinging fight with a fan and a late-season resignation.

“If Olmstead did public relations for Santa Claus,” former player Eddie Dorohoy once said, “there wouldn’t be any Christmas.”

Mr. Olmstead attributed his own success on ice to lessons learned on a farm.

“You reap the rewards of what you put into it,” he told Ian MacDonald of the Montreal Gazette in 2004, “or you suffer at the other end.”

Murray Albert Olmstead was born on Sept. 4, 1926, to May Belle (née Dennis) and Cecil Clendon Olmstead, who ran a dealership for agricultural implements in the Saskatchewan village of Sceptre. The elder Mr. Olmstead had arrived in the province from Ontario, hiring a team of oxen to get from the railway line to an isolated homestead north of a barren expanse of sand and dunes known as the Great Sandhills. He married one of the daughters of the farmer across the road.

The boy played hockey and baseball in the village before moving to Moose Jaw to play junior hockey at age 18 in 1944. He helped lead the Canucks to the finals of the Memorial Cup championship in 1945 before losing to the St. Michael’s Majors of Toronto in five games.

The tough forward turned professional with the Kansas City Pla-Mors of the United States Hockey League, spending three seasons in the minors except for a nine game call-up to the NHL’s Chicago Black Hawks, during which he recorded just two assists.

In his first full NHL season, Mr. Olmstead played on a line with Bep Guidolin and Metro Prystai, another Saskatchewan-born player and a junior teammate. The trio were dubbed by sportswriters as the Boilermakers Line for their toughness and blue-collar work ethic. (They were also known as the Meatball Line.) Mr. Olmstead scored 20 goals in his inaugural campaign, tying for second in voting for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, which was won by Boston Bruins goaltender Jack Gelineau.

An oddity of his career is that he would never again score as many goals in a campaign.

Late in 1950, Mr. Olmstead was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, who assigned him to the minor-league Milwaukee Seagulls. Seventeen days later, Detroit traded him to the Canadiens for Leo Gravelle.

Mr. Olmstead flourished under Montreal coaches Dick Irvin Sr. and, later, Toe Blake. He learned the importance of positional play and would scold teammates who joined him in the corners to battle for the puck. He wanted them in front of the enemy goal to receive his passes.

The forward benefited from playing alongside so elegant a player as Jean Beliveau, so flashy a sniper as Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, and so fiery a scorer as Maurice (Rocket) Richard.

The meaner Mr. Olmstead played, the more goals he helped produce. He led the league in assists with 48 in 1954-55, the same season in which he recorded a career high of 103 penalty minutes. The following season he set a new NHL record for assists in a season with 56, which would last five seasons before being surpassed by Mr. Beliveau.

On Jan. 9, 1954, Mr. Olmstead played one of the greatest games in NHL history when he recorded eight points in a 12-1 drubbing of Chicago at the Forum in Montreal. He fired four pucks past goalie Al Rollins and added four more assists (on two goals each by Ken Mosdell and Mr. Beliveau). The eight points tied the mark set by linemate Mr. Richard in a 1944 game. Darryl Sittler of Toronto broke their record by recording 10 points in a 1976 game. Mr. Olmstead’s performance is all the more remarkable for coming neither during wartime’s depleted lineups, nor with the dilution of talent following expansion.

Mr. Olmstead played a key role in helping a star-studded Montreal lineup win Stanley Cup championships in 1953, 1956, 1957 and 1958. He was often assigned to shadow the star player on rival teams, including Gordie Howe of Detroit. In the summer of 1958, though, he was left unprotected by the Canadiens, who suspected a knee injury would make him less effective, and the Maple Leafs claimed him, hoping the veteran would imbue a rebuilding club with a sense of how to win a championship.

Not long after he joined the team, the last-place Leafs fired coach Billy Reay. George (Punch) Imlach, the new general manager, coached the team behind the bench during games, but he placed Mr. Olmstead in charge of practices and the dressing room as an assistant playing coach.

“I’m sure he can instill a lot of fire in this club,” Mr. Imlach said. The Leafs squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season.

In 1962, a broken shoulder suffered late in the season caused Mr. Olmstead to miss the Maple Leafs’ opening eight playoff games. He returned to help the Leafs defeat the defending champion Black Hawks in six games. It was Toronto’s first Stanley Cup victory in 11 seasons.

The Maple Leafs left him unprotected in the offseason, and the New York Rangers claimed him, as general manager Muzz Patrick hoped he would become coach.

“(Muzz) Patrick wants me to fire up the Rangers, but that’s a lousy idea,” Mr. Olmstead told reporters at the time. “If I was capable of doing it I would, but I can’t. I can still play for a contending team, but I can’t carry a poor club anymore.”

Mr. Olmstead instead retired as a player. He had scored 181 goals with 421 assists in 848 games. He had another 16 goals and 43 assists in 115 playoff games. He played in four all-star games and was twice voted an NHL Second Team All-Star.

In summers, he returned to Saskatchewan where he played semiprofessional baseball at $400 per month with a barnstorming team from his home village.

A blemish on his record came in the summer of 1958, when he was fined $1,000 for assault causing bodily harm for an attack on a West Vancouver businessman following a trapshooting competition. (Mr. Olmstead was an eagle-eye shot on the ice and off.) Mr. Olmstead punched the man in a dispute over an auction, The man sued and Mr. Olmstead settled out of court for $5,250.

Mr. Olmstead had success as coach of the old Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. He was then hired as general manager and coach in Oakland, as the Seals were one of six expansion teams to join the NHL for the 1967-68 season. The club was woeful and quickly fell to the bottom of the standings. A fierce competitor as a player, Mr. Olmstead grew ever more grumpy and irascible.

“They’re just not trying,” he complained. “I’ve insulted and I’ve threatened. But they’ve just quit.”

He resigned as general manager late in the season and never again coached in the NHL.

Like his father before him, Mr. Olmstead worked the soil, operating a 170-acre grain farm outside Calgary. He also held an executive position with a Calgary realty firm.

Mr. Olmstead died on Nov. 17 at High River, Alta. He leaves his wife, the former Nora Moffatt, whom he married in 1952; a daughter, Bonnie; a son, Dennis, who won an American collegiate hockey championship with the University of Wisconsin Badgers in 1973; and, a granddaughter. He was predeceased by two brothers and three sisters.

In 1985, Mr. Olmstead was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining linemates Beliveau and Geoffrion who had earlier been honoured. He has also been inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame and the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame.

A proud man, Mr. Olmstead felt he had been overlooked for many years by the Hockey Hall of Fame. He liked to note he had played what would be his final game with the Canadiens as a Stanley Cup winner and his final game as a Maple Leaf as a Stanley Cup winner.

Bert Olmstead table hockey with familyBert Olmstead plays table hockey with his children.

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